'Free' Commissioned Art

According to Wikipedia, “A commission is the hiring and payment for the creation of an [art] piece, often on behalf of another.” And according to Wikimedia, the etymology of commission comes from the Latin word commissio, meaning “to send together.”

While casually looking at listings for real j-o-b-s, I have encountered a troubling trend. Take this real-life example:

Please submit a sample 1–2 minute video, using [our site's] post as inspiration. Send us an unlisted link and mention the title of the post you based it on. Focus on clarity and engagement. Inform us, entertain us. Inspire us. Make us want to share it.

If we ignore buzzwords like engagement and clarity, we get to the heart of the matter: this company requires applicants to submit commissioned art for free. Such an arrangement goes againt everything commissio stands for: “to send together.” It is decidedly tilted in favor of the potential employer, who gets new content for free, regardless of the outcome of the application process.

More troubling, this requirement limits the application pool to a particular, exclusive club, whose members are independently wealthy or have an abundance of free time. Unsurprisingly, very few people have the time or money to work on such an assignment, when they have bills or loans to pay. The few applicants who are able to submit applications are rewarded with the slim chance of netting a measly three-month, paid internship.

$1,000,000,000 U.S. Mint-issued bill feat. me and Dad, circa 1999.

$1,000,000,000 U.S. Mint-issued bill feat. me and Dad, circa 1999.

I prefer the late Aaron Swartz’s hiring process. In his post, How I Hire Programmers, Swartz enumerates the ways he vets potential employees. Most pertinently, he lays out a solution that satisfies both employers and applicants:

[T]here’s a final sanity check to make sure I haven’t been fooled somehow: I ask [applicants] to do part of the job. Usually this means picking some fairly separable piece we need and asking them to write it. (If you really insist on seeing someone working under pressure, give them a deadline.) If necessary, you can offer to pay them for the work, but I find most programmers don’t mind being given a small task like this as long as they can open source the work when they’re done.

First, Swartz would pay applicants for their work. Second, the applicants would use their commissioned work for the greater good, by submitting to open source projects, activities that stay true to the root of commissio. In this kind of arrangement, an employer vets a more diverse set of candidates by paying them for their work, which should theoretically increase the company’s "engagement" stats. In such an employer-employee arrangement, the words "free" and "commissioned," with regard to work or the arts, never existed in the same universe.